All Our Broken Idols (Review)

The mournful cry of a dying lion, the smooth hand of a mason, the sour smell of a poor man’s breath, belly brewed with hunger… I enjoyed this book. Paul Cooper is a talented writer and lovers of Antiquity, Mesopotamia, and historical fiction like Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things will find much to enjoy here.

All Our Broken Idols is Paul Cooper’s second book, I am not sure if it is my favourite (I really loved River Of Ink), but I am glad serious historical fiction, unafraid of being literary, is still being produced. It tells the story…well, really, it tells two stories which interact and intersect in interesting ways. The first of these is about two peasant children in the Assyrian empire at the time of Ashurbanipal. The story opens with the dull flatness of the interior, where the chance encounter between Sharo and Aurya, a lion (really my favourite element), and the king himself set off the chain of events which drive the novel. The other story, concerns Katya, an archaeologist (palaeobotanist?) caught up in fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014.

This conceit of using two distinct timelines, really one story told diachronically, is an interesting part of the book and as I write this I am struggling to think of the last time I saw this used in a memorable manner. Perhaps Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – thought that book had a much more truncated timeline (WW1 to the present) and therefore much more immediacy between both halves of the story. Cooper makes excellent use of this device and both “halves” intersect and resonate with one another in ways that only serve to enhance the story. Some of these resonances occur on a basic, pragmatic, level (e.g both take place in Nineveh/Mosul), others are more thematic (lions, belonging, memory…), and they certainly encourage the reader to go back and re-read earlier chapters more carefully.

One of the best of these resonances is the use of the Gilgamesh epic. This seems to be emerging as a trait of Cooper’s historical fiction, though the use of the epic is less direct and more subtle than the use of the Shishupalavadha in River of Ink. This makes sense, since the earlier book directly concerned itself with the translation of that text. In All Our Broken Idols, the text instead is referenced by the characters throughout, often at times which serve to highlight broader plot points narrative themes: The movement from the wilder hinterland to the more “civilised” city, law vs want, the whims and duties of kings, the potency of loss, and even the nature of storytelling itself. The author’s use of the test stays firmly within the realm of the metapoetic and never reaches levels of smarminess.

‘Five years to tell a story, and it ends with no one getting what they want?’

‘They got something else though’

For Sharo and Aurya, the Gilgamesh epic has been handed down by their mother; for Katya, it has been picked up as a book from an Iraqi bazaar. Where does Cooper get his? The excerpts seem much more novel like than I remember from my struggling Akkadian, and the end note suggests that they are the author’s own creation, assembled from various translations. Like a modern Sîn-lēqi-unninni. If you are interested in listening to the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian, click this link to go a wonderful collection of recordings. If, like Katya (and most of us) you want to read the epic I can happily suggest e.g Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia as a good starting point.

I suppose a brief note on each of the different timelines is warranted here.

Sumerian was a language isolate. It was used for such a long time that, like any natural language, it would have changed faster than the differences we see in the written standard. When Akkadian (a Semitic language) speakers took over, they must have brought some first language interference with them to their work in Sumerian. At some point, not only has Sumerian died out, but Akkadian has started to change and may well be giving way to Aramaic in the spoken realm. How much can we really construct of Mesopotamia? Even with our evidence? Is this a boon or a bane to the historical novelist? None the less, the author does a wonderful job in evoking the period. Even little details such as the names for months/seasons, the type of food eaten, the prayers and curses as well as the stories told; all add to this verisimilitude.

Of the two stories, this is my favourite. Perhaps unjustly, for me it is the “real” story. Sharo, and Enkidu, have my sympathies and my interest. Some of the most arresting moments in the book occur in this half of the story. There was a scene, long foreshadowed in the book itself, and easily anticipated by anyone familiar with Assyrian art, that when it happened, I had to put the book down for a moment. Elsewhere, Ashurbanipal strides off the page. His inscriptions have always flickered with his personality, and it would have been easy to get him wrong, paint him as some two-bit Thersites, but instead we get a character that is genuinely kingly. Do we like him? (maybe) do we hate him? (maaaybe?). Either way, he is complicated and interesting. The Assyrian part is really the meat of the story for me, with the present day one mainly interesting when it (or Cooper via it) uses its archaeological remains to tell a story.

Katya’s story begins the best part of 27 centuries later, in the context of an archaeological dig. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the archaeology was done. There was no Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider silliness, nor does it fall for the anachronistic trope of archaeologists picking up and reading inscriptions or documents (let’s name this trope after Boardman, who was brilliant): in fact the one dig site member who can fluently read Akkadian is held in suitable awe. Instead, we get careful descriptions of soil analysis, cataloguing find spots, establishing layers and digging test trenches. Nor does the author shy away from current debates in archaeology about provenance, ethics, and ownership. The archaeological team is, justly, worried about looters and the threat they pose to the past but western academics and collectors are hardly much better. The bitterness, scepticism, and mistrust the locals feel is clearly somewhat warranted. The author handled all this deftly.

‘Just catalogue the damage for now. Piece together the fragments, try and put a story together.’

One thing leapt out at my, and I suspect I am reading too much into this, is Katya’s position within this context. Despite her name, she is not Russian but Half British/Half Iraqi. From a narrative standpoint this makes sense, it allows the author to gird her with a sense of emotional investment in Iraq and its antiquities beyond academic specialism. Her father was an Iraqi reporter who was made to disappear (this is not a spoiler) and this obviously drives her. Where is she on the scale between native and western interloper/academic? At one point a crisis is approaching and she gets into an argument with a native archaeologist on what to do with a find. “It’s my history too” she complains, only to be told to “fucking act like it” if that is the case. On at least one occasion a character comments on her terrible Arabic. Again, I am probably reading too much into this, but I think this is incredibly interesting given the themes of identity and ownership throughout. I shan’t spoil what happens, but I left the book thinking that there is a very real dissonance between Katya as is and Katya how she would like to paint herself. Maybe you need to be a bilingual/immigrant/third-culture kid to see it. Of the modern characters, it is Salim (with his studied nonchalance) and Dr Malik who really stand out.

In June 2014 ISIS took Mosul. That is a story in and of itself, and not a nice one. Cooper pulls few punches (the reality was even worse), and a few things need to be said here. The link between antiquities looting and ISIS was (is?) very real and we know of at least one brave man who died hoping to protect antiquities. Bravo for not shying away from this. If you have the time (and if you are reading this, you probably do) please take a second to read up on Khaled al-Asaad (whom I think Cooper sort of pays tribute to?). The age of heroes is not wholly over.

Lola, one of the best drawn characters in the book, happens to be a Yazidi girl. Few have suffered at the hands of ISIS quite like the Yazidi. It would be easy to focus on how Cooper imbues this character with a kind of quiet, wounded, stoicism, it is harder – but ultimately more right – for us to remember that the Yazidi still exist in a very beleaguered state. I would like to draw your attention to two groups that function as charities and for raising awareness:

Yazda – A multi-national Yazidi global organization established in the aftermath of the Yazidi Genocide in 2014, to support the Yazidi ethno-religious minority and other vulnerable groups.

The Amar Foundation – Runs support for the Yazidi, and other groups, ousted and targeted by ISIS.

It is odd to see ISIS mentioned in historical fiction, but it struck me to what degree historical fiction is conditioned by (dependent on, really) its contemporaneity. I do not mean the old, obvious, canard of any historical enquiry telling us about the present. I mean that, perhaps ironically, in the aftermath of the looting of places like Mosul and Palmyra, with the wounds from ISIS still fresh and ongoing, this may well be the only point in history this story could be told with such poignancy.

It would be terrible to end the review here, on the omnipresence through human history of suffering, on the arbitrariness of violence and hate…especially when the book itself at times strikes some hopeful notes. Memory, family, stories, all these things are real too. All Our Broken Idols is Paul Cooper’s second book, I am not sure if it is my favourite, I certainly hope it is not his last. It is more than recommended.

‘All those people would be dead by now anyway.’

‘That doesn’t matter when you’re reading it. Every time you read it, they come back to life all over again’

Romanland

Romanland

Disclaimer: I am not a Byzantinologist Byzantinist Byzantine specialist. However good my Latin and Greek; I don’t have access to Armenian, Arabic, Syriac etc and that inevitably colours my readings. In terms of secondary sources, I don’t have enough Russian or, indeed, any Slavic language. Make of that what you will.

Anthony Kaldellis is one of the most interesting historians working in our fields today in that he is actively seeking to revise something that needs revising and not needlessly prevaricating (‘problematising’ in current parlance) something for the sake of clicks/citations. Even so, I initially couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the idea of another work on identity. Thankfully, I was wrong.

K’s claim that the Byzantines were really just Romans is obvious to anyone with a smattering of familiarity with antiquity. The interest lays in his asking two fundamental questions:

  1. How has the occlusion of this self-evident fact came about, and why?
  2. What are the implications in how we read late Roman history, esp regarding ruled vs ruler?

Chapter 1 – A History of Denial – is largely concerned with the first of these. K begins by providing a few ‘snapshots’ which he uses to illustrate various arguments throughout. This is intuitive and familiar to both fledgling Classicists (‘gobbet questions’) and consultants etc (‘case studies’).  I am surprised this isn’t used more broadly. The conclusion he draws from these is that the Romans saw themselves as an extended kinship group for a lengthy period (from the election of Anastasius to the 13th century).

One of the most illustrative of these is a letter sent to the Byzantine court by the Frankish emperor Louis II, in 871. Therein, the emperor tries to make the case that the Byzantine’s aren’t really Roman.

What is fascinating is how little the Franks understood what made Romans Roman. Throughout the letter they decry the fact that Emperors are made and elevated by the Senate and the people (where have we heard that phrase before?)[1]. For the Franks, the only model is their own inherited monarchy. The Frankish (later French) kingdom benefited from an unusually uneventful succession in the main Capetian branch all the way down to the unfortunate sons of Philip Le Bel. In contrast, the Roman politics of the Byzantine state must have looked…well Byzantine. I half suspect this is the origin of the term as a pejorative.

The rest of the chapter is dedicated to explaining how this occlusion came about. In short, the Western stereotypes arose out of something like jealousy of anxiety over legitimacy and we have in part inherited this. I was fascinated by K’s mentioning that the Arabs would try to delegitimise the late Romans reasons of their own and wished this was further expanded.

References to Persian literary sources are sadly missing, I know that Rum often served as a romantic setting and that they had a schizophrenic relationship with Alexander ‘the Roman’.[2] But this is hardly a loss given the rest of the book.

I also wish the development of modern Greek identity got more of a showing.[3] One of K’s claims (right to my mind) is that if there was something of a proper modern Roman ethnicity (akin to how we have Jews, Armenians etc) to fight back against academics, none of this occlusion would have happened.[4] Well, the Greeks are the direct inheritors of Rome and the story of how a Greek identity was constructed internally and externally – through historians like Paparrigopoulos and selective readings of aberrant, classicising, authors such as Plethon – would have been useful. K touches on this material here and there, but he is clearly a master and I would be interested in reading further. But for a throw of a dice or two, we could have had a modern Romania or Roumeli.

You need to be warmed up for Chapter 2 – Roman Ethnicity – which introduces a few more snapshots and continues to strengthen the overall argument by referring a broad variety of evidence, readings, and modern theoretical framework.

One point in particular made me put down the book in astonishment: the tendency for scholars to dismiss Roman identity in favour of some atavistic label is…well its racist, or at least racialist and essentialising.

Much of the chapter is spent on fleshing out the Roman ethnicity in its own terms. One of the most interesting parts deals with how Byzantines envisioned their relationship with the Romans of the classical era. Suffice it to say they saw them as ancestors and evoked this past in interesting ways. Students of the early Byzantine period may be familiar with Julian’s Caesars, the antiquarian work of Giannis Lydus, or the classicising references in Procopius’ Buildings, but K undoubtedly makes the case for continued importance of the Roman past throughout Byzantine history.

By any theoretical framework, then, the Byzantines saw themselves as Roman by ethnicity and descent.

The last chapter of part 1, Romanland, is my favourite. Some of the charges against a Roman ethnicity have been to claim that this was only ever elite and at any rate restricted to political language and court ceremony. Again, I find this pretty racialist, the idea that we can see that they really were Greeks. K here lays out the case for a popular sense of Romanitas based at least in part on a good old-fashioned lexical study.

The philological evidence is undeniable. Words like Romania and Roumeli arose strictly in the vulgar tradition and made their way into high cultural discourse against the intensely classicising elite culture. That they managed to do so is surely testimony to the strength of this identity. The key takeaway is that during this period there is a transition from seeing Rome as an empire, ruled by Romans for Romans over non-Romans (imperium Romanorum) to an imagined community of Romans living in the titular Romanland. This is intuitive, and perhaps the expected outcome of changing demographics and the Constitutio Antoniniana. The transition from a Roman world of essentially allied city states, to one conceptual city state (as in the words of Themistios), to something like a nation state is interesting. The fact that academics have systematically avoided talking about this, is telling.

My favourite part, however, relates to the presence of Latin in Byzantium. Honestly, this is something I am incredibly interested in. I loved Planoudis’ translation of Ovid as an undergraduate and the work of Baldwin on Virgil’s Βyzantine reception. Before Greek was ‘cleansed’ it also had a fair few words borrowed from Latin, which makes sense historically.[5] This is really, really, interesting to me. If you’re also interested, here’s a link to a PDF bibliography via HistoryTwerp.

The fact that the Byzantines spoke Greek rather than Latin forms a huge mental hurdle in the minds of we moderns who have only ever known the nation state, for all we talk about diversity and multiformity. The ancient world has many such parallels and I do think this segment, which should have been expanded, could have benefited from a more expansive, comparative, framework. E.g the ancient near East where East-Semitic speakers like the Assyrians (speaking a dialect of Akkadian), inherited a culture in an unrelated language (Sumerian) before their own flourished, only to eventually adopt Aramaic as an everyday language. This would be a great area for sustained study.

The eventual preponderance of Greek over Latin was always going to happen as a matter of demographics. I find the semantic shift for the word Romaika interesting. The Hermeneumata Pseudodostheana use it to mean Latin, but it quickly shifts to mean Greek. Again, as late as the 19th century this was common. It’s used to mean ‘Greek’ through Dumas’ LE COMTE DE MONTE-CRISTO.

On to part two, and I will try to speed things up here. Having established that the Byzantines were Roman, saw themselves as such, the extent of how this ethnicity was imagined, constructed, and continued as well as the causes for its scholarly and popular obfuscation; K goes on to explain the implications of this for viewing Byzantine history. Answering the second of the two fundamental questions I posit at the start of this review.

Chapter 4 – Ethnic Assimilation – makes a few obvious points. We consistently talk about Byzantium being cosmopolitan, assimilating and so on, but for the first time we (by appreciating the majority population) we can accurately begin to see the cause and affects of these assimilatory processes.

The next chapter, The Armenian Fallacy, could just as well be called The Armenian Pathology given the apparent illogical urge for scholars to try and find Armenian ancestry for so many players in Byzantine history. K makes some interesting points, why single out Armenian ancestry and act as if its unusually resistant to Romanisation cf to others such as Greeks, Dacians, S. Italians etc etc? In part, its motivated by special interest groups, but on the whole, this seems unintentionally racist.

I was surprised to find just how little evidence we have for the alleged Armenian ancestry of Heraclitus and that so much in the otherwise brilliant Kaegi commentary is built on supposition. I recall an abject lesson in the reconstruction of epic motifs delivered to me years ago during a tutorial: You can read the evidence and make a conclusion, you’ll be on fairly firm ground, you can’t then continually make things up based on assumption after assumption: That’s castles in the air.

I had honestly thought his Armenian ancestry explained the increase in Greek court usage – though wondered how that tallied with his most important posting being in the Latin west – so, that really is something.

This chapter, which might seem random, is the most important from a methodological standpoint: Once you’ve laid out your framework and your toolset you have to test it on specific cases, and this is a great chapter for that reason.

The last two chapters directly access the concept of empire in the later period. Like the rest of this section, this is more a case of applying the method but are, of course, interesting in and of themselves.

So, as we reach the end, what do we make of this important book? I think it worrying that something so obvious and so consistently well evidenced has been ignored by academics, systematically. I don’t think, necessarily, there’s been a perfidious conspiracy. It’s a combination of inherited biases and training: How many medievalists can read Latin and Greek with anything like the fluency of a classicist? How many are immersed enough in the texts, epigraphy, and papyrological sources of the Roman period enough to understand Roman self-definition before their period? Scant few, I think.

Not that any of that forms an excuse. It is the job of the historian to work beyond such constraints. K goes beyond offering a mere corrective (however sorely needed), and shows an interesting new angle for mainstream byzantology to adopt.

For anyone interested in Byzantine history, for the intellectual history and historiography of working with our sources, or simply what the sons of Romulus were doing in the middle ages, this book is a must buy.

I am not a Byzantinologist Byzantinist Byzantonologos Byzantine specialist. This book almost makes me wish I was.


[1] For the role of popular sentiment and pseudo republicanism, it would also be worth reading K’s THE BYZANTINE REPUBLIC.

[2] We forget how important Greco-Roman antiquity was to the Persians. The Arascids were essentially a post-Hellenistic people, and when the Sassanid’s took over much of their ‘Achaemenid’ heritage was intermediated via Classical sources. Hence why they, e.g, had a special military unit called the ‘immortals’. This isn’t direct continuity! Despite what special interest groups claim.

[3] In a way this is unfair. K has written a whole book on this, HELLENISM IN BYZANTIUM, which is THE text on the topic.

[4] Of course, we would then have to deal with yet another special interest group. Christ preserve us.

[5] E.g ρήγας, king, < rex, regis (still a proper name, see the hero Ferraios), σπιτι, house, < hospitium. Greek assigns foreign verbs its own conjugation based on Latin coniugatio prima – are etc etc. The single best study is E. A. Sophocles’ GREEK LEXICON OF THE ROMAN AND BYZANTINE PERIODS.

Socrates in Love

SOCRATES IN LOVE opens (or rather, is bookended) with a charming vignette: the author as don instructing his tutees. I’d like to offer my own experience, if only to lend some context to my interest in this book.

We were meant to write on the differences and similarities between Xenophon’s and Plato’s accounts on Socrates’ apology. This was probably meant to be our serious introduction to philosophy. I, of course, biffed it: I spent two pages comparing their prose styles and then finished with some inanities on Athenian Law and how it might relate. One colleague (seems too industrious a term for us…) trying to prove himself a wit, made a comparison with Jesus.  

“After all. Both Jesus and Socrates were craftsman. We know nothing of their early lives – before Potidaea and the ministry – both write nothing and had conflicting accounts produced by their students”.

Quite.

So that’s the challenge D’Angour has chosen to take up. There are precedents. Though Diogenes Laertius’ account has sadly been lost, enough fragments and traditional material survived to provide inspiration for several medieval and renaissance accounts. Perhaps the most famous, Giannozzo Manetti’s Vita Socratis et Senecae, is little read today but a great example of facts never getting in the way of a story.

D’Angour neither writes in that fanciful tradition, nor in line with the recent(ish) popular craze for biographies.[1] Nor, even, is this like Lefkowitz’ magisterial treatise on Greek biographic tradition.[2] It is a wonderful mixture of fact, quellenkritik, and good old-fashioned classical philology (in its proper broad sense). You owe it yourself to get this book. I was constantly in awe not only of his grasp of the material, but his ability to weave it into coherent argument. Even where I remain unconvinced, I am more pensive and thoughtful.

The book stakes out two main claims. One, that the traditional image of Socrates as barefoot, ugly, and lower class is a fanciful construction – a literary trope – made to enforce his image as a philosophical archetype. That the real Socrates was in many ways like the real Alcibiades. Two, that Diotima was actually…Aspasia.

The first seems intuitively true, though I had never considered it in detail before. We know that the ancients often imagined portraits and speeches, and we know that there were all sorts of odd theories about physical appearance and character. Just look at the way Cleopatra is described vs her (probable) numismatic portraits.

D’Angour lays all this out brilliantly, with especial attention to the staging of Aristophanes’ Clouds. I was honestly surprised, I always thought S. looked like your typical satyr in a satyr play (presumably minus the erection). But the reasoning here is unimpeachable.

On his military background, I need no convincing. I still think Plato was playing it up, but service was incredibly important to Athenian men – consider Aeschylus’ tomb stele[3] – and the comic tradition could have been savage to him were he another Archilochus.

D’Angour’s S. has at least quasi oligarchic links. This is, again, intuitive to me: S. was clearly familiar with a wide variety of thought. Most of the ancient world lived fairly subsistence, he would need to be reasonably well off to even stand a chance at encountering the broad swathe of ideas of which he was evidentially familiar. People easily forget this. Stonemasonry was also a considerably skilled trade. Which leads me to the next point, D’Angour’s contextual reconstruction of S’ philosophical training and background is worth the price of admission alone.

We know that S. moved in aristocratic circles anyway – I maintain he was probably killed for his link to Critias – add to that Plato, Xenophon, Pericles (junior), Aspasia etc…it makes sense.

What we are treated to, then, is a tour of how the philosophical archetype was constructed and then a peek under the hood, behind the curtain, in a credible attempt to recover an historical S. The author is in excellent command of his material and we are treated to discussion on the Clouds, Symposium, Republic, and a smattering of other texts. This serves as a great introduction to the intellectual culture of the time. Not the squeaky-clean democratic pastiche moderns think Athens to have beem; but the kind of city where an ex-wrestler could become its greatest philosopher,[4] and a stonemason put to death for atheism, and the son of an aristocrat could make himself strategos for life and claim to uphold the democratic system.[5]

This, for me at least, was where the real value of the book lay.

Now, for the second claim, that Diotima = Aspasia. I think this is very clever, I won’t prejudice you either way here – read the book – but I’m not sure if I am convinced. It is clever. Perhaps more in a NAME OF THE ROSEway than a manuscript stemmatography and that seems to me a problem. It touches the evidence in all the right, if circumstantial, ways, but never quite clicks for me.

What is useful is a reassessment of Aspasia’s status in the Periclean milieu. ‘Hetaira’ in the traditional sense has always seemed unlikely given her aristocratic connections and the legitimate status of Pericles (junior). Its obvious that the status of women in the sources for the era isn’t always clear cut (see also the debate on S’ Xanthippe), and its interesting to see how a more hostile tradition about her arose in the ancient sources. Plutarch, for one, almost seems to confuse her with Neaira or Phyrne.

I have written overlong. There are way too many notes in my copy. I think you get the gist of my review, and I hope I have given a fair assessment without spoiling the arguments therein. D’Angour has produced a wonderful example of stimulating, accessible, scholarship. It is more than the sum of its parts and if its claims are perhaps a little ambitious, they are made in the true spirit of the discipline. You would be advised to read.


[1] Dunn on Catullus and Pliny. Room and Wilson on Seneca. A new translation of Azoulay on Pericles. Natali and (sort of) Hall on Aristotle. Le Bohec on Lucullus.Etc etc.

[2] Anyone interested in how such traditions were extracted from literature, constructed, and propagated, needs to read Lefkowitz.

[3] Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει/μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·/ἀλκὴν δ’ εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι/καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος

[4] Suck it Aristotle. Nobody likes you. You have no friends.

[5] Listen Cicero, not even Plato lived in Plato’s Republic. Romulus’ dungheap is more than good enough.

A smorgasbord of pseudobookreviews

Writing requires the confluence of time and discipline. For me, those two are very much like Romeo and Juliet – it’s not that the twain shall never meet (I mean… hello, nursey ԅ(≖‿≖ԅ) ), just rarely and with disastrous consequences.

So here are a series of rapid one or two sentence reviews of books I’ve recently read or re-read.

Sally Rooney NORMAL PEOPLE

Oh, god, am I a cunt?

Sally Rooney CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS

Yes, yes I am.

Tim Leach SMILE OF THE WOLF

Honour is like an angry wolf. (Will actually review, soon).

Anne Fadiman EX LIBRIS CONFESSIONS OF A COMMON READER

Hopefully Anne you shan’t find out divorcing libraries is infinitely more horrendous than marrying them.

Monaldi and Sorti SECRETUM

Eunuchs have balls too. Oh, god, Dottore Eco we miss you.

Hiro Arikawa THE TRAVELLING CAT CHRONICLES

Turns out I do have a heart…and it’s broken. I KNOW WHO’S TO BLAME.

John Carey THE UNEXPECTED PROFESSOR

Oxford was always broken. Also, Donne is cool.

Rainier Maria Rilke DUINO ELEGIES

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?

Rainier Maria Rilke LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET

I should write more.

Ted Hughes COLLECTED POETRY

I should write less.

 

Short Note: Utility in the ancient world

I was recently listening to an interesting interview with John Romer on the latest volume in his series of ancient Egyptian history when he said something interesting. On enumerating some of the changes apparent in the transition from Old to Middle Kingdom he mentioned that Egyptian traders and explorers often found themselves deep south into Africa trading and searching ‘…not for the essential things, but just for the rituals of the court’.

I don’t want to read anything into Romer’s offhand comment and in fact highly recommend his books to anyone interested in ancient Egypt, but what he said serves as a useful springboard for considering this contrast between essential things and court ritual. I don’t think such a dichotomy existed in the minds of the ancients at all.

We treat what remnants of court ritual we still possess with an airy familiarity. There’s a sense of quaintness to it all. It didn’t take Charles I’s head being removed from his body for us to realise that he was not God’s anointed. Mallorian fictions aside, no one would link the health and hale of the land to its monarch. A barrister or a judge still possesses learning and status without wig, robe, and gavel.  In a real sense these symbols are, like what Romer’s Egyptians bought from south of the Sahara, non-essential.

But can we say the same for the items of ancient court ceremonies? I wouldn’t be so sure. After all, Diocletian’s movement towards an ‘asiatic’ style of court ceremony had a very practical, necessary, goal of protecting the ruler in an age when emperors were made with the edge of a sword. If the secret of empire in Tacitus’ time was that emperors may be made outside of Rome and without the acclamation of the senate then the crisis of the third century made it quite clear that a man wearing the purple is still just a man and dies as readily. By turning to non-essential items (purple robes, coronae etc) and behaving in an a particular manner, Diocletian and his successors were sending a clear message.

Clearly then this is one example of a disjunction between ancient and modern thinking. But it’s not that we’re more practical, just that what’s pragmatic for us expresses itself a little differently.

Listening to Romer, I couldn’t help but think of the bronze age Aegean (BAA). Egypt to Mycenae is not such a stretch: recent popularising treatments (like Eric Cline’s) take a broad areal approach and we know the regions existed as parts of a wider political network. Also, my grasp of Egyptian is terrible and so the BAA is comfortable and familiar.

We don’t have a good sense of court ritual from the BAA. We have striking monuments (such as the horns of power outside Knossos), vivid frescos and a sense of exotic items in the linear B tablets and the detritus of shipwrecks like the one off Uluburun. Occasionally we catch glimpses of titles of court and religious officials, and the reference to an initiation in Pylos, but the tablets contain nothing descriptive. Nonetheless, Gazing into the face of Schliemann’s “Agamemnon” we intimate that these people had a sense of pomp and ritual.

Contrary to our modern expectations, weaponry in the BAA existed in a place where practicality and the ritual mindset intersect. Let’s take the earliest swords, types A, B, and C in the Sandar typology: Often mislabelled rapiers, they were around a metre or so in length yet possessed  perilously small tangs.  It’s hard to see these things being used to great effect in a physical altercation. Scholars have sensibly assumed they possessed some ritual importance.

This is all the more clear in the case of the double axe. Slender and unwieldy, they do not compare with the decent examples of battle axes we have from Norway to the Punjab: Axes employed in war had to have small heads to maximise the speed at which they could be moved.

By any sensible heuristic, these items were not practical. So why invest precious resources in making them? Why feature them so prominently? The ancient world was one where civilisation hung from a precarious thread, as the eventual destruction of the BAA palatial complexes attests, there had to be a sensible reason. As you may have guessed, it’s because the court ritual element conferred its own pragmatic benefits.

Court ritual has a grammar of its own and surely the message would have been obvious to those trained in its language. A sword that is not a sword, or an axe that is not an axe, subtly reinforces the relationship between power and military might, while offhandedly advertising the kind of conspicuous consumption that could afford to use rare metals hours of skilled labour.

Sitting in his court, the king didn’t need his sword to be functional or useful: After all he had many men with sharp ones of their own.

On such fickle things rest the illusions of political systems. Incense and funny robes and fragile sword like objects may not seem to be essential or practical to us but clearly the ancients got some returns on their investments therein. Also, I daresay the population of the bronze age Aegean were happy to take part in pomp if it meant seeing real weapons a little less often.